For the third consecutive season, the Atlanta Falcons are playing inside the Georgia Dome on opening weekend. An intriguing matchup against their bitter rivals marks the last opening day inside the iconic dome. After being swept last season, Atlanta hasn't forgotten about both humiliating defeats. Poor tackling and unforced errors prevented them from winning both games.
By upgrading at several key positions in the offseason, the Falcons are poised to win more than one divisional game this year. New Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter is considered as an offensive guru, who can decimate opposing defenses with his scheme. There are still plenty of questions about his head coaching credentials. With opening weekend finally here, he can make a big statement against his former team. Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Matt Ryan returns to where the downfall started
Despite completing 37 of 45 passes in a 23-20 overtime loss to Tampa Bay last November, Ryan's decline officially started in that game. He threw one of the worst interceptions in his career to Kwon Alexander. Tampa Bay scored on that drive, which made a substantial difference in a close game. Ryan looked timid and overly conservative following that awful decision. He looked even worse in the rematch, as the franchise quarterback threw an outrageous interception to Lavonte David, which sealed Atlanta's slim playoff hopes.
With upgrades being made at wide receiver and tight end, you would expect better performances. How will Ryan cope with going against his former head coach Mike Smith, while trying to jell with heavily scrutinized offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? That remains to be seen.
This should be a favorable matchup for Ryan, as Tampa Bay's secondary is average at best. Connecting on deep passes and handling interior pressure are technical aspects to observe closely. Those have been some of Ryan's more notable deficiencies over the past three seasons. Following the worst season of his career, a strong start is needed. When it comes to home openers, Ryan tends to be highly efficient.
Both rookie linebackers enter the fray
Dan Quinn didn't hesitate to name both rookies as starters. As the Paul Worrilow era finally comes to an end, Deion Jones brings plenty of optimism at middle linebacker. With excellent speed and instincts, some type of upgrade is expected. It will be fascinating to see his explosiveness alongside De'Vondre Campbell. Starting both rookies is clearly a risk, but Quinn realizes the long-term upside. With no other ideal solutions, this should be viewed as a positive move.
How they handle Dirk Koetter's complex offense is going to be something to watch. Koetter is known to call screens and get his running backs involved as much as possible. Charles Sims is one of the better pass-catching running backs in the league. He made Justin Durant look foolish on multiple occasions last year. Cameron Brate found some success across the middle of the field as well. It also can't be forgotten that Jameis Winston embarrassed Atlanta's entire linebacker core in one play last season. Both linebackers will need to properly wrap up Winston. Lowering your shoulder against the 230-pound quarterback usually ends up being a poor decision. There will be growing pains, but both linebackers have the capabilities to be difference makers.
Using the outside size advantage
Both teams possess two enormous wide receivers and smaller cornerbacks. Atlanta has the best wide receiver and cornerback between them. They have the better cornerback duo (trio) as well. Tampa Bay's cornerback group features a rookie, aging star, and free agent flop. Vernon Hargreaves will likely handle slot duties. That will leave Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner on the outside. All three cornerbacks are five-foot-ten or shorter. None of them are capable of being a number one cornerback at this stage of their respective careers. The safety position is filled with below average veterans as well.
With Julio Jones at six-foot-three and Mohamed Sanu at six-foot-two, they need to take advantage of Tampa Bay's smaller cornerbacks. Both wide receivers can make catches in traffic. Although Sanu struggles to create separation, he is capable of making difficult catches across the middle. Shanahan needs to devise plays for both wide receivers and allow them to utilize their physical gifts. Jones is clearly the focal point, but Sanu should be targeted as well. He was signed to be their second wide receiver. After not having a qualified second option last year, it's time for Shanahan to relieve some pressure off Jones.
First look at the pass rush
Due to Tampa Bay's run-first mentality, this section is lower on the list. Everyone knows that the pass rush is going to be one of the deciding factors behind Atlanta's overall success. In this particular matchup, the base defense could play more often than usual. Brooks Reed will be looking to build on a solid preseason by playing in the LEO role. The interior duo of Grady Jarrett and Tyson Jackson showed plenty of promise alongside each other as well.
That being said, there will be plenty of opportunities for the nickel package to harass Winston. Dwight Freeney and Vic Beasley will finally line up on opposite sides together. With Adrian Clayborn's speed and Jonathan Babineaux's ability to create penetration, the defensive line should give Tampa Bay's below average offensive line issues. High-priced free agent signing J.R Sweezy is on the PUP list. Without Logan Mankins, the offensive line lacks above-average talent, experience, and leadership. The defensive line needs to pounce on this excellent opportunity. Beasley struggled mightily in both matchups against Tampa Bay last year. He will need to implement more effective pass-rushing moves following an underwhelming preseason.
The once-successful duo is back together inside the Georgia Dome. Koetter and Smith have switched roles for Tampa Bay. Despite receiving major criticism at the end of his coaching tenure, Smith is still well respected for bringing consistent success between 2008-2012. Koetter's play calling left a lot to be desired in Atlanta, but his rapport with Winston can't be denied. They are playing to his strengths from utilizing play action and allowing him to be aggressive downfield.
Grimes is another familiar face returning to Atlanta. His exodus left Falcon fans upset. Only Thomas Dimitroff can let two Pro Bowlers (Grimes and John Abraham) go in the same offseason. Grimes was roasted by almost every number one wide receiver last season. As the 33-year old cornerback clearly lost a step, Smith needs to properly utilize him. Forcing him to cover Jones without any safety help is asking for severe trouble. Grimes is still a ballhawk, who plays above his miniature size. All three of them were prominent figures within the franchise. They can all be difference makers for what could be a reemerging heated rivalry.